One company's bold move: leaving suburbs for the city Sylvan reverses trend, opts for urban address

November 26, 1996|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

The greeting on their employee handbooks seemed to sum it up -- "Welcome to the Other Side."

For the more than 500 employees of Sylvan Learning Systems, their first day yesterday at Sylvan's new downtown office represented a rare occurrence: a large national company moving its headquarters from the suburbs into Baltimore.

"There's definitely some symbolism to it all," said Peter Cohen, the president of Sylvan's learning center division, as he sat in the expansive office building near the Inner Harbor. "There's the hope of revitalizing the city and its school system, and to improve the overall interest in the city."

Business experts say that the move makes Sylvan the first national company of its size to move its headquarters to Baltimore in more than 20 years. The company has more than 600 learning centers across North America.

Cohen readily admits the move from the company's old headquarters in bucolic Columbia has some drawbacks. Traffic is worse, crime is more of a concern, and, "I see a lot more bums and panhandlers than before," he said.

"But in return, you get character, more character than you'd ever see in 100 years in the suburbs," said Cohen, who said he recently watched a filming of the TV show "Homicide" near his Fells Point apartment.

Sylvan, a private education service and testing firm, is the first office tenant of the 20-acre Inner Harbor East development that is part of Baltimore's federally designated empowerment zone. The $32 million development, bounded by Exeter, Lancaster and Aliceanna streets and Central Avenue, underscores the hope of city officials to attract prestigious employers to Baltimore.

The city population has dropped more than 27 percent since 1950 -- from about 950,000 to 691,000 -- and businesses haven't been far behind the people, says Richard Clinch, program manager for the Maryland Business Research Partnership, a University of Baltimore think tank.

"Coming into Baltimore from Columbia is definitely counter to the trend of leaving downtown to go into the office parks of the suburbs," Clinch said. "It's completely contrary to what you'd expect."

Clinch said some large employers have moved satellite offices into Baltimore in recent years -- notably Bell Atlantic and American Telephone and Telegraph -- but the Sylvan move is more unusual because the building at 1000 Lancaster St. will be used as their national headquarters.

"The headquarters is what you want in a city, it brings not only a large employer but prestige," Clinch said.

Sylvan's move to Baltimore is partly tied to company wishes to be close to the Baltimore school system, one of its bigger clients. In 1993, Sylvan contracted with the schools to establish learning centers for academically and economically disadvantaged students in six public elementary schools. The contract with the city has since grown, Sylvan officials said.

Sylvan employees spoke enthusiastically yesterday about their move to the city, with several saying they were encouraged by the company effort to promote Baltimore. The move has gone smoothly, they said, although some said crime is on their minds.

"I have kind of mixed feelings," said Sharon Loving of Catonsville, who works in a third-floor office cubicle. "My husband is very apprehensive about me being here. He said he's going to buy me a Club for my car."

Ironically, Sylvan's move to Baltimore came on the day of a Money magazine survey on America's safest cities -- and unfortunately, Baltimore didn't do very well. Citing a nationwide telephone poll, the magazine found Baltimore to be eighth on the list of most dangerous U.S. cities to live in.

John K. Hoey, Sylvan's vice president for human resources, said a handful of employees expressed concern about crime. But he said the company has reassured them that the building will be well-guarded day and night by a security force, and city police bicycle officers will also be on patrol.

"I personally don't think crime is an issue down here," Hoey said. "We've thought a lot about security and I think we've done a good job with it. As we sit here the fence is going up around the parking lot."

Jazz Johnson, 28, an administrative assistant at Sylvan and a Baltimore resident, said she felt the move represented something special for employees.

"I think everyone's inspired by the move," she said. "It's going to do something for Baltimore, and that gives you a sense of company spirit."

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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